On the longest night of the year—the Winter Solstice—ancient people celebrated the return of the sun god. The darkest time of the year was past; now the days would begin getting longer. The festival known as Yuletide involved burning a log on the eve of the Solstice (which occurs on either December 20 or 21 each year in the Northern Hemisphere).
Although the name Yule comes from the Norse words “Yul” or “Jul,” the ritual burning of a special log during the Winter Solstice took place in such far-flung places as Ireland, Greece, and Siberia. The earliest burning of a Yule-type log was in ancient Egypt around 5000 BCE in honor of the sun god, Horus.
The Celtic Druids decorated their logs with holly and pinecones. The remnants of the burned logs, believed to protect the homes from evil and lightning, were traditionally kept to start the fire the following year as a symbol of the cycle of seasons, the annual death and rebirth of the sun, and the triumph of good against evil. Ashes from the Yule log were spread around homes and gardens as added protection.
As Christianity spread, the tradition of the Yule log came to be associated with Christmas, particularly in England, where Father Christmas was often portrayed carrying the Yule log.
In the 4th century CE, Pope Julius I decreed that Christmas would be celebrated around the Winter Solstice. The Yule log tradition continued, but came to represent the Savior, rather than the sun (it’s no coincidence that in Christianity, Jesus is often referred to as the “light of the world”).
Similar traditions existed in France and Italy.The Yule Log is a tradition that dates back to the 12th century, observed in the rural areas of France. The family goes out into the woods on Christmas Eve to select a tree, which is then cut down. The men carry an enormous log of freshly cut wood called the Yule log (ceppo) into the house. They circle the room three times and the log is placed in the fireplace. A glass of wine along with oil and salt is poured over the log. Prayers are offered and Christmas songs are sung and the log is lit. In some families, the young girls of the house lite the log with splinters from the preceding year, which they had carefully tucked away. In other families, the mother had this privilege. It was said that the cinders of this log could protect the house from lightning and the malevolent powers of the devil. Choices about the variety of wood, the way in which it was lit and the length of time it took to burn constituted a genuine ritual, which could vary from region to region This tradition lasted up to until the last quarter of the 19th century. Its disappearance coincides with that of great hearths, which were gradually replaced by cast-iron stoves. The great log was thus replaced by a smaller one, often embellished with candles and greenery, placed in the center of the table as a Christmas decoration. This tradition continues in Italy today, where—with many variations—it is it known as a ceppo.
Buche de Noel
The French, though, with their love of cooking, took the custom in another direction, replacing the actual log with a log-shaped cake called a “buche de Noel” (Christmas log).
Although never as popular in the United States as in Europe, the burning of the Yule log, known as a “backstick,” marked the beginning of Christmas celebrations in Appalachia. According to their tradition, as long as the backstick burned, people were not allowed to work and could enjoy themselves.
The first Christmas yule log cake, or buche de Noel, recipe was cleverly created in the late 1800s by a French pastry chef looking to replace and pay culinary homage to the original yule log tradition. This new, gastronomic tradition caught on in spectacular fashion, and the Christmas dessert is now celebrated worldwide. This chocolate buche de Noel recipe showcases a light-as-air, vanilla Genoise cake rolled into a cylinder with the richest, homemade chocolate buttercream frosting.
Buche de Noel
4 large eggs, separated $
2/3 cup sugar, divided $
2 tablespoons water
1 teaspoon vanilla extract $
1/2 cup ground almonds $
1/2 cup sifted cake flour $
3 tablespoons cocoa
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
Dash of salt $
2 to 3 tablespoons powdered sugar $
Rich Chocolate Buttercream
1/2 cup chopped pistachios $
Meringue Mushrooms (optional)
Grease bottom and sides of a 15- x 10-inch jellyroll pan; line with wax paper, and grease and flour wax paper. Set aside.
Beat egg yolks in a large mixing bowl at high speed with an electric mixer 5 minutes or until thick and pale. Gradually add 1/3 cup sugar, beating well. Add water and vanilla. Fold in ground almonds. Gradually fold in cake flour and cocoa.
Beat egg whites at high speed until foamy. Add cream of tartar and salt; beat until soft peaks form. Add remaining 1/3 cup sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, beating until stiff peaks form. Gently fold into egg yolk mixture.
Spread batter evenly into prepared pan. Bake at 375° for 10 minutes or until top springs back when touched.
Sift powdered sugar in a 15- x 10-inch rectangle on a cloth towel. When cake is done, immediately loosen from sides of pan, and turn out onto sugared towel. Peel off wax paper. Starting at narrow end, roll up cake and towel together; cool completely on a wire rack, seam side down.
Unroll cake, and remove towel. Spread cake with half of Rich Chocolate Buttercream; carefully reroll. Cover and chill. Cut a 1-inch-thick diagonal slice from 1 end of cake roll.
Place cake roll on a serving plate, seam side down; position cut piece against side of cake roll to resemble a knot. Spread remaining Rich Chocolate Buttercream over cake.
Score frosting with the tines of a fork or a cake comb to resemble tree bark. Garnish with chopped pistachios scattered around to resemble moss growing on the log. If desired, add Meringue Mushrooms. Store cake (but not mushrooms) in refrigerator.